Saturday, July 31, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

We have a Constitutional right to be vicious and foolish ...

... all the more reason not to exercise it.

Most of us don't have to see this kind of crap day in and day out -- or perhaps worse, hear about it continually from families and far-flung communities.

U.S. Muslims do. There's nothing extraordinary about this newscast, except that the presenter acts as if it's substance is all in a day's work. [2:13]

Many communities would not leave their Muslim members to face this desecration without protest. I don't know if that will be true in the Florida town. Certainly there are Christians and people of no faith in the Florida Panhandle who know better.

It is past time to make September 11, not a mournful observance of the failures of our government to see looming dangers, but a celebration of the civil liberties and religious toleration that make this country so different from the world's theocracies. A terrible trauma happened. But it is time to stop wallowing in it, to stop celebrating victimization, and look to what sometimes makes this country great.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Arizona anti-immigrant law blocked ... but

In any case, the Obama administration is swooping down on immigrant workers and tearing apart families at a far greater rate than the Bush guys ever achieved.

The Prez talks a smart immigration reform game, but accelerated deportations are the reality. And nothing is going to end the reality of undocumented immigration so long as employers in this country want cheap, powerless workers from across the border where Mexico remains an economic basket case for the starving unskilled.

So racism is gets reinforced today and nothing is solved but the brown people feel the hurt. Not a proud day.

Afghanistan: civilian casualties

The United States will eventually leave Afghanistan. We will decide we can't afford it, just as we realized we couldn't afford a meaningless, corrosive war in Iraq either.

This video tells us something else: why we should leave Afghanistan if we have a smidgen of human sympathy.

On the road today ...

When mired in airport waiting areas, little things divert. Good news: both Long Beach and Logan (Boston) have free wifi. Yeah for them.

The item above was a feature of the women's bathroom at SFO. You just stick your hands in and it blows hot air. True, this doesn't get them dry, but usually neither do empty paper towel dispensers ...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More money for war; who loses?

Before this drops down the memory hole, here are a couple of the last paragraphs from the Associated Press story on yesterday's approval of funds for Obama's Afghanistan adventure.

The bill includes more than $33.5 billion for the additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and to pay for other Pentagon operational expenses, $5.1 billion to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief fund, $6.2 billion for State Department aid programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Haiti, and $13.4 billion in benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

In addition to stripping out money for teachers and student aid, the final bill does not provide more than $4 billion requested by the administration to finance settlements of long-standing lawsuits against the government, including $1.2 billion to remedy discrimination by the Agriculture Department against black farmers and $3.4 billion for mismanaging Indian trust funds.

My emphasis.

So in order shake loose funds to ship servicepeople to get killed in Afghanistan, we are screwing students and teachers -- and U.S. citizens who have a legal claim on the government for grotesque misconduct.

The black farmers' lawsuit involved the Pigford settlement that the recently unexpectedly prominent Shirley Sherrod was a part of; the native peoples' trust fund embezzlement by the Feds was where Republican wheeler-dealer and bribester Jack Abramoff made his ill-gotten gains (for which he went to prison). I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Senate Republicans balked at paying up what these people were owed.

Watch unemployment grow

... and weep.

"The Decline: The Geography of a Recession," was created by labor writer LaToya Egwuekwe. It shows the growth of unemployment county by county from January 2007 until July 2010.

Greg Sargent has the skinny on why Republicans think this picture is just fine.

The larger Republican strategy -- explained to me privately by Republican aides -- is rooted in the fact that they believe dragging out any discussion of unemployment helps the GOP in the long run. ... But their larger strategy is all about casting doubt on the efficacy of the stimulus in particular and on the failure of the Dems' big-spending ways in general.

Republicans think that it feeds their larger argument, particularly among independents, if Dems continue to ask for more money to help the jobless (drawing attention to the fact that Dem spending policies have yet to fix the economy) while Republicans continue to insist that government find the money to pay for it.

This isn't about Republicans banking on mass economic suffering to help them at the polls. Rather, they're dragging out the discussion of unemployment in the belief that the public will conclude that Dem policies have failed -- and that Dems have their heads in the sand about how much money they wasted on their pie-in-the-sky liberal dream schemes.

One of our two major political parties doesn't care who it puts the screws to in other to regain power. This should be considered sociopathic.

At least the other party thinks that it has to throw a few bones to the majority of the citizens if it wants to keep its jobs.

H/t to Time Goes By for the clip.

And here's another map detailing what will happen to job training programs funded by the stimulus if Republicans don't relent.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Marauding mosquitoes munch on mountaineers

Has anyone reading this ever been chased off a peak at over 10000 feet by mosquitoes? This happened to us last week in Yosemite National Park -- twice! I know this was a fairly wet winter and some patches of snow remained, but this was like trying to camp by a lake in Minnesota in June. We were swarmed by biting bugs. Climbing meant swallowing one occasionally while panting. Yuck! The Sierra Nevada mountains were glorious as always, but usually when you get up that high, the wildlife is restricted to a few marmots.

I turned to the internet to see whether we were seeing the leading edge of global warming.

Apparently I'm not the only one who had that thought. The Florida resort of Key West is being plagued by alarmist reports that mosquitoes arriving from Central America are spreading dengue fever. Just what that city of the hotels and bars needed in a recession. Some scientists expect the mosquito-borne disease to spread on the Gulf Coast, but perhaps most alarmingly the Centers for Disease Control is being forced by budget troubles to cut the division that tracks such invasive, insect carried diseases. According to the New York Times,

The disease centers confirmed that the 2011 budget does eliminate financing for the “vector-borne” disease branch, which tracks dengue, West Nile virus, plague, encephalitis and other illnesses carried by insects.

Dr. Ali S. Khan, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said that the disease centers had to make budget cuts, and that the vector-borne disease branch was one. But he said other money could be used to pay for some of the work it used to do.

More than a dozen medical organizations have signed a letter to Congress, asking that the money be reinstated.

The report does not attribute the dengue threat to global warming; good scientists are careful not to generalize from anecdotal samples. But it sure would be reassuring to know the government had the resources to watch developments.
On the other hand, after all the alarms of past years, mosquito-borne West Nile virus does not seem to be marching triumphantly through California as some feared a few years ago. The state monitoring center reported only one human case last year and four this year.
One of the most fascinating tidbits of mosquito lore I found on the web was a recent article in Nature that explored what harm might follow if we succeeded in eliminating these biting pests. Scientists aren't usually fans of doing away with species, but in this case

... there seem to be few things that mosquitoes do that other organisms can't do just as well -- except perhaps for one. They are lethally efficient at sucking blood from one individual and mainlining it into another, providing an ideal route for the spread of pathogenic microbes.

"The ecological effect of eliminating harmful mosquitoes is that you have more people. That's the consequence," says Strickman. Many lives would be saved; many more would no longer be sapped by disease. Countries freed of their high malaria burden, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, might recover the 1.3 percent of growth in gross domestic product that the World Health Organization estimates they are cost by the disease each year, potentially accelerating their development. There would be "less burden on the health system and hospitals, redirection of public-health expenditure for vector-borne diseases control to other priority health issues, less absenteeism from schools", says Jeffrey Hii, malaria scientist for the World Health Organization in Manila.

Thousands of public health workers are working on this.
Meanwhile, the little buggers keep biting. There's lot of lore, almost all of it spurious, about why the bugs choose particular individuals for their blood-sucking assaults. I enjoyed this imaginative sample:

It seems that mosquitoes have discriminating pallets. Did you know...that mosquitoes prefer children to adults; women to men; blondes to brunettes; people who have smelly feet and women who are ovulating? They also bite 500 more times often during a full moon.

Bring on the DEET!

Blogging may be light for the next few days, though I've pre-posted some material. I'll be on the road driving around the Northeast and will update on how the mosquitoes are faring in places where the heat is soaring. Did the larvae boil?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Those Wikileaks documents

As someone who writes a lot about Afghanistan, I probably should have something to say about the 90000 pages of previously secret military documents let loose on the world today.

I can't get properly excited about them. If you were paying attention, you knew the Pakistani spooks were helping the bad guys, you knew NATO and US forces were killing more civilians than they admitted and naturally pissing off the Afghans, you knew that "Classified" often means simply embarrassing to a military, and you knew the Karzai "government" was a kleptocratic farce.

And you felt bad for the Afghans and the foreign troops who are getting maimed and dying in this mess.

But here's hoping the big leak adds to the growing skepticism of Congresspeople when they are asked to vote more money for the war this week.

"Excluded" workers band together

Last week I listened to women from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its local affiliate Mujeres Unidas y Activas report about their trip to the US Social Forum. That gathering drew some 15000 grassroots activists to Detroit in June to exchange experiences, share tactics and strategies, and envision a better future for people at the margins of U.S. life.

The women reporting back obviously had developed a great camaraderie, much reinforced on their long cross country bus trip; they repeatedly broke out in chants and collapsed in peels of laughter.

But what they wanted to tell the crowd at the Sunrise Cafe in San Francisco was what they had learned. And what they had learned employed a category that was new to me, though instantly recognizable once I'd heard it articulated.

"We learned about all the excluded workers: the taxi drivers, the day laborers, housekeepers and nannies, the farmworkers, guest workers brought into the country on contract to labor at hog farms and slaughter houses, the dishwashers in the back of the restaurant...."

What all these people have in common, beside low wages and frequently immigrant status, is that they usually work in the informal economy and are seldom covered by even the weak wage and hours standards that protect most employed people. The historical reason for their omission from the laws is pretty simple: this is work usually done by people of color. When labor laws were won during the the 1930s New Deal, excluding Blacks was a condition of white support.

Now the organized labor movement, pushed by the workers themselves, says it is time to fix the labor laws to include everyone. John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, recently spoke up for a domestic workers' bill of rights reminding people that his own mother had been a domestic worker for 40 years.

And in New York State, such a bill of rights passed the State Senate last month.

Two different versions have been passed by the two houses of the New York state government. The Senate version is more expansive and would grant guarantees such as paid holidays, sick days, overtime pay, and the right to collective bargaining. Right now, domestic workers are not even entitled to minimum wage.

"What the average worker takes for granted, that’s what we’ve been denied," says Patricia Francois, who worked as a nanny in New York for twelve years before losing her job a year and a half ago.

Yes Magazine

California workers pushed a similar measure through the legislature in 2006 but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the protections. These women will be back.

What was overwhelming in the women's report was the broader view of solidarity they had taken on. Sometimes what it takes to make progress is adopting new language that illuminates what we've been looking at all our lives. Excluded workers, used to highlight this whole class of people on whose labor our society depends but whom the more fortunate seldom consider, provides a frame that might reorganize the labor movement "from the bottom up."

All workers need to band together, but none more than those who have been historically excluded.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Yet another war we need to end ...

From the 18th International AIDS Conference last week comes the Vienna Declaration.

The criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed.

... There is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use.

This is a big step. Public health workers from all over the world are denouncing the "War on Drugs" as part of the problem, not at all a solution.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone in authority is listening. In a candid New York Times commentary on the declaration, Donald G. McNeil Jr. lamented:

No one heard. ... organizers' efforts to get publicity for the Vienna Declaration, which calls for drug users to be spared arrest and offered clean needles, methadone and treatment if they have AIDS, have come to naught. Almost no one here talks about the war on drugs.

Outside of Africa, one third of AIDS infections are thought to come from injection drug use. Though the U.S. contributes the bulk of world AIDS funds, our public health people would rather talk about most anything in preference to drug war abatement. McNeil points out one honorable exception:

... Dr. Nora D. Volkow, the normally low-profile director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, ... said she personally agreed with the declaration's premise.

"Addiction is a brain disease," she said. "I'm a scientist. The evidence unequivocally shows that criminalizing the drug abuser does not solve the problem. I’m very much against legalization of drugs or drug dealing. But I would not arrest a person addicted to drugs. I'd send them to treatment, not prison."

Asked if she feared being attacked by Congressional conservatives, she said: "I took this job because I want drug users to be recognized as people with a disease. If I don’t speak about it, why even bother to gather the data?"

These are pretty moderate sentiments about the "War on Drugs," but I suspect the reality-based community better get prepared to rally to Dr. Volkow's back.

While on the topic of the Drug War, I want to point out Michelle Alexander's new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The core of Alexander's argument is that, in the wake of the last century's civil rights overthrow of obvious legal discrimination, the "War on Drugs" has become the bulwark of an enduring white supremacy that grinds down most African Americans. Most white people and those people of color who manage to move into the middle class don't have to see this if we don't chose to look. But the drug war -- mass imprisonment, stigmatization of minor offenders, often brutal police enforcement and a facade of legal process that penalizes poor people -- have created a durable and largely unchallenged structure of oppression.

A bit of common sense is overdue in public discussions about racial bias the criminal justice system. The great debate over whether black men have been targeted by the criminal justice system or unfairly treated in the War on Drugs often overlooks the obvious. What is painfully obvious when one steps back from individual cases and specific policies is that the system of mass incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.

... how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Rather easily, it turns out. The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free reign. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities.

Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination -- i..e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows -- but does not say -- that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.

Any doubters should take a look at a recent New York Times article about the Brownsville neighborhood where 14000 residents get stopped and frisked by rookie white cops making quota over and over again usually without any arrests -- and where residents express frustration in equal measure about violent thugs and the police.

Alexander writes that civil rights advocates (her own background) may someday "be embarrassed" about their failure to leap into the fight against the way the Drug War enforces white supremacy. It would be great to see an alliance of the public health scientists and the civil rights community. They are naming the same harm.

Thanks to Daniel De Groot at Open Left for pointing to the Vienna Declaration.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Mission street food -- on the walls!

Last week I posted photos of some of the neighborhood food vendors. Here's how they appear when rendered as art by Francisco Aquino (aka Twick) in a new mural at 23rd Street and Capp.

The strawberry seller looks wary, just as his counterpart usually does in real life.


That apron looks like this hot dog vendor might go for having a union.

Aquino's Mission Street not only boasts a flower seller -- there's also a "Hope Cafe."

The soft gauzy style in which the vendors are rendered makes a nice change from some of the Mission's trite political murals.

Around the corner, the artist indulged his own more baroque, Mayan-influenced imagination.

The whole project is an effort at graffiti prevention according to the property management, much encouraged by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Torture apologist in town

These good folks were outside the Irish Cultural Center in the San Francisco's Sunset District Thursday to greet John Yoo, the featured speaker at an Association of Former Intelligence Officers luncheon.

The pickets' message was simple:

Crimes are crimes no matter who does them. Crimes under Bush are crimes under Obama and must be resisted by anyone who claims a shred of conscience.

John Yoo's memos gave "legal cover" for Bush regime crimes.

Fire John Yoo

There's not much doubt about their case: Yoo's legal arguments for torture were called "shoddy" and "biased" by government investigators. He wrote what his bosses wanted and excused patently vicious treatment of prisoners.

In the interests of absurdity, I should probably add that Yoo denies that banging helpless prisoners into walls and half drowning them is "torture." He should get a taste of such treatment if he wants any credibility for that statement.

I'm glad to see that Yoo is dogged by protesters, however feeble such efforts seem. After all, the guy is still ostensibly fat and happy, a law prof and a mini-celebrity within the torture wing of Republican Party. But it must be wearing to be labeled and denounced as a criminal everywhere he goes.

His accomplice in legal chicanery, the lawyer Jay Bybee who Prez George W. made a federal judge, whines because his name will forever be sullied by his advocacy for torture. According to the New York Times, he thinks he's the victim.

"I have regrets because of the notoriety that this has brought me," he said. "It has imposed enormous pressures on me both professionally and personally. It has had an impact on my family. And I regret that, as a result of my government service, that that kind of attention has been visited on me and on my family."

Poor thing -- his dirty work violently broke hundreds of mens' minds and spirits and he has to put up with being thought a monster.

The responsible adults here are pretty clearly the apparently weak pickets. They tell the truth, again and again; they stand on solid ground while the torture apologists flail. Their witness recalls us all to our humanity.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boys will be boys ...

The Democratic Governors' Association seems to think they can rally activists to "fight the right" by putting this out. It's a hoot.

Obviously they haven't noticed that women are more likely than men to be Democrats, regardless of age or other variables.

In case we'd forgotten, there's a war on ...

While politicians play the blame game, some people are taking matters into their own hands.

Waffaa Bilal, an Iraqi-American artist whose brother died in Iraq, has repeatedly tattooed himself to draw attention to the casualties of war. On his body are marks for each dead Western soldier, and 100,000 dots representing Iraqi casualties. [3:30] RT

Masters of the universe ...

in the Junior High School bathroom line.

I don't know what they are really doing, but it isn't their jobs. As the new Economic Security Index reveals, one in five of us is screwed. Where's the urgency, guys? Get to work!

Pic via Ezra Klein.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How to respond to a PR crisis

The Obama administration has been enduring public humiliation, having rushed to force the resignation a black USDA employee falsely charged with racial bias against white dirt farmers, only to have been shown to have swallowed a rightwing hoax and had the charges refuted by both the evidence and the dirt farmers. Pretty bad. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack has now offered the wronged employee a public apology and a job. He sounded quite contrite.

"I asked for Shirley [Sherrod's] forgiveness, and she was gracious enough to extend it to me," Vilsack said, accepting "full responsibility" for forcing her to step down.

"This is a good woman," he said. "She has been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job." ...

"I did not think before I acted and for that reason this poor woman has gone through a very difficult time," he said. "This was my decision, and I made it in haste."

In this last bit, he's defending the White House from charges that it pressed him to deep-six Sherrod in order to quiet the furor rightwing media were ginning up. The denial isn't likely to be believed, but otherwise, Vilsack seems convincing.

The other day I ran across a succinct description of how an institution should handle a public relations crisis. I saved it, not knowing when I might find it interesting. Now I know. Here's the prescription. (I've cut the specifics of the incident described to extract the general principles).

Acknowledge the mistake, apologize for it, and explain how you won't let it happen again. ... Do this emphatically and repeatedly for a while. Avoid the passive voice, or qualifiers to your apology or explanation. Embrace the bottom line -- you screwed up, you're sorry, you won't do it again, and you're implementing substantive changes. Let the aggrieved parties know that you really care about them. Then shut up and listen for a while. Make at least some of the changes those aggrieved parties recommend.

Having gone through this process with clients a few times, I know it's a lot harder than it looks. People have pride. They may feel that not all the facts are getting out there. They may be worried about liability, and they retreat to a bunker, thinking they should remain silent until the whole thing blows over. Sometimes they feel they really haven't done anything wrong, even if the wrongdoing is obvious to everyone else. When it's your company, or your organization, or your reputation, these are all understandable reactions. The actions these reactions prompt, however, typically make matters much worse.

My emphasis. If that's the standard, and I think it is, it looks like the Obama folks were able to sink their pride and fairly quickly take a better course. Any other action would not only have been wrong -- it also would have been a terribly damaging admission of inability to respond to a minor but telling crisis.

Much of my criticism of the Obama administration has arisen from shock that the crisis management apparatus that so deftly managed the 2008 campaign (any campaign is a minefield of unexpected eruptions) had apparently dissolved once the Prez took office. Let's hope this little episode presages a revival of past sure-footedness.

Budget short takes: Recognizing limits

It's nice to see Congressman Barney Frank, a guy who actually has influence in Congress, telling some home truths about where the federal government can save money if it wants to.

"We need a thoughtful, non-rancorous discussion about the appropriate mission," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Frank has been actively promoting ideas to cut the defense budget. In April, he put together a group of scholars to look specifically for defense cuts, unlike President Obama's deficit-reduction commission, which appears to be focusing elsewhere. The group issued its report last month, outlining nearly $1 trillion in defense budget cuts over the next 10 years.

"What should we be doing? What policy should we be setting? We have not had that conversation," Frank said Tuesday.

He's got the point: if, after more people get back to work, you want to reduce what the government spends, take a knife to the bloated military establishment. The thing grows in all directions, seemingly immune from concerns about why and for what purpose.

A machete is called for, not a scalpel.

What I was looking at last week this time ...


Slow blogging today ... I'm busy regrouping after a mini-vacation.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

War drums rumbling

Marc Lynch has more confidence in the powers-that-be than I do. The usual suspects -- U.S. admirers of the Israeli right, the inveterate imperialists, the bellicose bullies -- are talking up bombing Iran again. Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, notes the rising noise level. But he is confident that this is merely the reflexive gibberings of Washington's perennial warrior chest thumpers.

An attack on Iran would still be a disaster, unnecessary and counterproductive, and the White House knows that, and it's exceedingly unlikely that it will happen anytime soon. But the real risk is that the public discourse about an attack on Iran normalizes the idea and makes it seem plausible, if not inevitable, and that the administration talks itself into a political corner. That shouldn't be allowed to happen.

In the broad scheme of things, this administration's job has been, and remains, to extricate this declining power (yes, that's us -- the ever-so-powerful U.S.) from imperial overstretch. The world has moved on; we don't run it. We live in it, among other peoples, many of whom are on their way to their own special glories and challenges.

When Lynch says "the White House knows," he is exaggerating. U.S. politicians aren't allowed to "know" the real constraints within which their country is operating. They must run a con game (usually even on themselves), either promising glorious triumph over the enemies of the moment or deflecting attention from challenges while managing intractable realities. The current set in power -- we hope -- is an ascendancy of the second type.

As has been the case throughout our history, the U.S. people have to interject themselves into this charade. Though we enjoy chest thumping and the violence of American football, we, usually, don't much like wars if forced to notice them. We don't want our own getting killed in faraway places. We learn, over and over, that, as that tough old bird General Smedley Butler concluded: "War is a racket."

Politicians are always surprised when we notice the wars of empire. But despite occasional outbursts of xenophobia, at root "we just want to get along." Can the White House keep that in mind? It is never easy.

A DC jobs program

So I guess we can say we do have a bipartisan jobs program out of our government:
  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • least 1,700 federal employees and 1,200 private contractors work at Liberty Crossing, the nickname for the two headquarters of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its National Counterterrorism Center. The two share a police force, a canine unit and thousands of parking spaces.
  • The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, has gone from 7,500 employees in 2002 to 16,500 today. The budget of the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping, doubled. Thirty-five FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces became 106.
  • Not far from the Dulles Toll Road, the CIA has expanded into two buildings that will increase the agency's office space by one-third. To the south, Springfield is becoming home to the new $1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters, which will be the fourth-largest federal building in the area and home to 8,500 employees. Economic stimulus money is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this kind of federal construction across the region.
  • More building, more expansion of offices continues across the country. A $1.7 billion NSA data-processing center will be under construction soon near Salt Lake City. In Tampa, the U.S. Central Command’s new 270,000-square-foot intelligence office will be matched next year by an equally large headquarters building, and then, the year after that, by a 51,000-square-foot office just for its special operations section. Just north of Charlottesville, the new Joint-Use Intelligence Analysis Facility will consolidate 1,000 defense intelligence analysts on a secure campus.
All these items are direct from the Washington Post's blockbuster report: Top Secret America. The whole thing is worth reading.

Unfortunately, none of this actually makes us any safer, since, according to investigative reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin, its sheer volume defies useful understanding, coordination and effective action. The Christmas underpants bomber showed up at 16 points in the chain of information lost somewhere in there, but it took an alert civilian fellow passenger to stop the guy.

I sure hope Paul Krugman is right when he says it doesn't much matter what the government spends money on, that pure waste is as good as a stimulus as productive investment in our present dire economic condition.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Remarkably unconvincing spin on Afghanistan

Kyle Spector from Third Way, a think-tank outfit that mostly works to enhance the Democratic Party's Republican-lite tendencies, dispenses prize blather about the U.S. public's growing recognition that President Obama's Afghanistan adventure is a fruitless sink of lives and treasure. Sure there's a way to explain that the polls don't say what they say, you see ...

... Americans are following the stream of negative news out of Afghanistan, which will tighten the already-slim margins of support the president still receives on his Afghanistan policy. Clearly and consistently reminding the public of the reasons for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the gains being made in taking the fight to al-Qaeda and the Taliban could go a long way in maintaining support for the president's strategy. Equally important will be communicating results and letting the public know that there is an endgame in Afghanistan that most could support: bringing U.S. troops home responsibly after neutralizing the terrorist threat.

Now how is the administration supposed to remind us of "reasons for the mission" when there is no coherent "mission" and communicate "gains" and "results" when there aren't any?

CIA Director Leon Panetta recently estimated the number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to be "60 to 100, maybe less."

Robert Haass, Newsweek

For this we have a war costly $100 billion annually plus a bloated "National Security" spook apparatus costing another $75 billion mostly to pay private contractors? How is the U.S. military supposed to find and kill 60-100 terrorists in a country it can't control that is home to 30 million fiercely nationalistic Afghans?

No amount of spin is going to get Obama off the hook for his misguided escalation of this war. Cut your losses, Mr. President.

The wisdom of Seuss

I have to wonder if this guy would have been fired if he'd done this under Prez George W.? The ranger is reading Dr. Seuss's anti-corporate fable, The Lorax, to a small group of attentive kids and their parents, after pointing out the peaks.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It is not.

Here's the setting, a large granite lump called Lembert Dome in Yosemite National Park. It's both dramatic and easily scaled.

That's Tuolumne Meadows down below.
I'm back from a week in the mountains, recharged.

It hurts to care a whole awful lot, but caring and acting is the only hope of making it better. Dr. Seuss knew.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

When science trusted in its own virtue ... and subjects could not

Writer Rebecca Skloot describes her narrative, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as "a logistical and organizational nightmare." It certainly is expansive, episodic, complicated, nuanced, informative, intelligent, easy to read, and morally sensitive. I'm not going to pretend to summarize beyond passing on this description, from Skloot's website:

Henrietta was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cancer cells [labeled as HeLa], taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine, with disastrous consequences for her family. Today, her family can’t afford the health care advances their mother’s cells helped make possible.

That is, this is about what happens when poor black people meet modern science and scientists; we know who starts off one up and who stays one down. The book chronicles that relationship as first observed and then felt intimately by a white, well-educated, science journalist -- and it works in the sense that readers of similar background to the author's can journey through that turf with Skloot. Readers will get a glimpse of the chasm of race, class and educational privilege that separates their world from that of generations of Black people in this country. Along the way, we can also learn a lot about our high-end science and its ethics.

One of the episodes that made the strongest impression on me concerned cancer research in the mid-1950s. Perhaps because my partner is an ethicist who serves on an Institutional Review Board assessing scientific experiments, I found this tale shocking:

In February 1954, [Dr. Chester] Southam loaded a syringe with saline solution mixed with HeLa. He slid the needle into the forearm of a woman who'd recently been hospitalized for leukemia, then pushed the plunger, injecting about five million of Henrietta's cells into her arm. Using a second needle, Southam tattooed a tiny speck of India ink next to the small bump that formed at the HeLa injection site. That way, he'd know where to look when he reexamined the woman days, weeks, and months later, to see if Henrietta's cancer was growing on her arm. He repeated this process with about a dozen other cancer atients. He told them he was testing their immune systems; he said nothing about injecting them with someone else's malignant cells. ...

All those who were injected grew tumors at the pinprick sites. Most, but not all, of these resolved on their own. Some Southam removed surgically. Having collected his results from cancer patients, Southam went looking for healthy subjects into whom to inject Henrietta's cancer cells.

So, in May 1956, he placed an ad in the Ohio State Penitentiary newsletter: Physician seeks 25 volunteers for cancer research. A few days later he had ninety-six volunteers, which quickly increased to 150. ... Research on inmates would come under scrutiny and start being heavily regulated about fifteen years later, because they'd be considered a vulnerable population unable to give informed consent. But at the time, prisoners nationwide were being used for research of all kinds-from testing chemical warfare agents to determining how X-raying testicles affected sperm count. ... Southam gave multiple cancer cell injections to each prisoner, and unlike the terminally ill patients, those men fought off the cancer completely....

In the coming years, Southam injected HeLa and other living cancer cells into more than six hundred people for his research, about half of them cancer patients. He also began injecting them into every gynecologic surgery patient who came to Sloan- Kettering's Memorial Hospital or its James Ewing Hospital. If he explained anything, he simply said he was testing them for cancer. ...

No patients died from these experiments, so the doctor didn't feel he was doing anything wrong. He was advancing science; if patients had been told they were being shot up with live malignancies, he feared they would not have let him do it.

Fortunately, three young Jewish doctors, grimly aware of the Nuremberg trials' verdicts condemning Nazi doctors for experimenting on captive human subjects, blew the whistle on Southam and the medical establishment that saw nothing wrong with his activities. The experimenting doctor received no more than a slap on the wrist, suffering no professional penalty for his conduct.

But the episode led the National Institute of Health to require that proposals for government funding of scientific research should be approved by review boards that included laypeople
from diverse races, classes and backgrounds as well as doctors and scientists. Out of this ferment, the modern concept of "informed consent" in medical research was born.

Scientists howled that progress would cease if there were such restraints on their work; but the curbs were enacted and research chugged along. Many people are at least somewhat willing to give consent, though questions always remain about how well most of us understand what we consent to.

However, as Skloot explains, even harder issues lurked in questions about individual privacy and commercial exploitation of bits of our bodies when they are handed over to the medical profession. Henrietta Lacks concludes with a careful afterward about the contemporary shape of these issues that should be required reading for scientists and concerned citizens. As research progresses deeper into unraveling the human genome, these questions will become ever more urgent.

Again, Skloot explicates the problem succinctly on her website:

The thinking in science has always been that everyone should participate freely in tissue research -- giving freely of their cells and tissues -- because it helps medical progress. When you go and have a biopsy taken at a hospital, you sign a form that says my doctor can dispose of my tissues any way he sees fit or use them in research, those tissues are stripped of your identity and used in research.

The attitude has long been that everyone should allow their tissues to be used for the good of science because everyone benefits, since the research leads to important drugs, vaccines, etc.

But the thing is, not everyone does benefit in the United States, because we don’t have universal access to health care. There is an imbalance in this country, which means many of the medical advances coming from tissue research aren’t available to everyone, sometimes including those who provided raw materials for the research.

My emphasis. That's the fulcrum of Henrietta Lacks' story. Rebecca Skloot has told it with balance and complexity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Street food in the Mission

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on healthy food in the 'hood. The food available in San Francisco's Mission from diligent vendors may not be quite so healthy, but it's tasty!

The corn on the cob probably isn't bad for you.

Neither are the tamales this woman patiently hawks from her cart at the 24th Street BART [subway] station.

But these bacon wrapped hot dogs are heart attack specials.

And popular all around the street.

Follow that hot dog with an ice cream bar.

The ice cream guys work this stuff off, pushing their carts around the neighborhood.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday critter blogging:
Coraline came to visit

Coroline and friend.jpg
With her friend.

She is a Silken Windhound puppy and an enthusiastic lap sitter.

My Congresswoman shows a glimmer

Because Nancy Pelosi's real constituency is the Democratic caucus in Congress, those of us she nominally represents -- because we can and do (mostly) vote for her -- often feel under-represented. I certainly have.

But sometimes even if inelegantly, the Congresswoman lets us know she understands which end is up:

"It just can't be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget," [Pelosi] said. "If you take away entitlements, the domestic discretionary non-defense budget is about half the defense budget, and maybe that's what we need to protect the American people. But in terms of the war now in Afghanistan, which is a growing part of it, that we have to say how can we carry this and can we carry this on the backs of children's nutrition. I'm not even talking about unemployment, there's so much else that is at stake."

Huffington Post

Wars and more wars and military bases everywhere are luxuries we simply can't afford if we want to feed kids.

Okay -- so now do something about it Congresswoman!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Diane Ravitch has changed her mind

When I was employed during the 1990s working for racial equity in public education, Diane Ravitch was one of the leaders of what we saw as the enemy camp. A veteran of George H.W. Bush's Education Department, we saw her as part of a cabal of "reformers" who wanted to impose homogenous high-stakes testing, privatization by way of vouchers and charter schools, and authoritarian management practices on messy, but democratic, institutions that we too thought needed changes. There were people with good ideas out there like testing skeptics at FairTest, the progressive practitioners at Radical Teacher, and the academic advocates like Linda Darling-Hammond then at Columbia and Christopher Edley, then at the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Ravitch was then a heavy hitter against their ideas.

So when I heard she'd changed her mind on most of that I figured I should read her new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Her rejection of past enthusiasms is thorough. Some specimens:
  • On the "No Child Left Behind" federal law that sets the framework for education reform: "

    ...To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. ...

    Its remedies did not work. Its sanctions were ineffective. It did not bring about high standards or high accomplishment. The gains in test scores at the state level were typically the result of teaching students test-taking skills and strategies, rather than broadening and deepening their knowledge of the world and their ability to understand what they have learned. NCLB was a punitive law based on erroneous assumptions about how to improve schools.

  • On charter schools:

    Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected. The regular public schools will enroll a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities and students who are classified as English-language learners; they will enroll the kids from the most troubled home circumstances, the ones with the worst attendance records and the lowest grades and test scores.

  • On the mania for standardized tests:

    The problem with using tests to make important decisions about people's lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments. Unfortunately, most elected officials do not realize this, nor does the general public. ...

    The consequence of all this practice is that students may be able to pass the state test, yet unable to pass a test of precisely the same subject for which they did not practice. They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself. In the new world of accountability, students' acquisition of the skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary. What matters most is for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached "proficiency."

Most of Ravitch's new views are conventional among progressive reformers, but novel coming from her.

The part of the book from which I learned the most concerned the big foundations that have moved into educational policy in the last 15 years. Ravitch calls Gates, Walton and Broad "the Billionaire Boys' Club" and her attitude toward their interventions is scathing.

Each of the venture philanthropies began with different emphases, but over time they converged in support of reform strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches. These were not familiar concepts in the world of education, where high value is placed on collaboration. The venture philanthropies used their funds assertively to promote their goals. Not many school districts could resist their offers. ...

And so it happened that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education because of their strategic investments in school reform. As their policy goals converged in the first decade of the twenty-first century, these foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education.

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don't like the foundations' reform agenda, they can't vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.

I have to wonder whether these epiphenomena of our present age of growing inequality will ever mellow in their philanthropic enthusiasms? The residue of the previous Gilded Age (such as the Ford, Mott, and Carnegie foundations) have moderated their arrogance to some degree, noticed a few failures, incorporated some diverse influences. But the new outfits are still feeling their oats, ricocheting around in the enormously complex arena of our kids' education with lots of money and without any need of exercise any of the less dramatic virtues such as prudence or doubt. I pity the kids (and teachers) who are the butt such well-intentioned experiments.

Calling out foundations' autocratic interventions is not something that most policy analysts can afford to do -- literally. Ravitch has the standing to speak truths that would cost less prestigious advocates their jobs. She does the vision of a public education system a great service with this denunciation of destruction passing as reform. Unfortunately, in public education the Obama administration is augmenting the failed policies of its predecessor so such voices are needed as much today as ever.
For all my gratitude for the stance Ravitch has chosen to adopt in this book, I should add that, as in the 1990s, Ravitch subsumes any attention to the lack of racial equity in all phases of the school experience under the category "achievement gap." When many children of color are still (within the law) relegated to schools without textbooks, enough chairs, or even heat in winter, while white students attend gorgeous modern facilities and meet less harried, better paid teachers, race still matters in public education. She must know this, but it still doesn't seem to have penetrated to the center of her educational concerns.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The crises of capitalism

You wouldn't think an exposition of the world's current economic (and governance) crisis could be fun, but this is. If you've got a platform, REPOST IT! as I did from Cogitamus.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A movie not to be missed

The film Stonewall Uprising is currently showing as many places as it ever will. Catch it before it disappears.

Why this documentary? Because filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have framed the story of the famous riot in 1969 in Greenwich Village where gays fought police repression just as we need to have it framed today if we're not to buy into historical distortions.

Stonewall was about the crazy-making dissonance between a youth culture that was exploding with exuberant sexual liberation (and a nod to peace and racial justice as well) but that did not yet include LGBT people. If everyone else got to glory in loving and fucking freely, why not the queers? The moment was ripe for rebellion and the fags, drag queens, trannies and other rifraff at Stonewall brought it.

All of this not the message of contemporary, and necessary, LGBT civil rights agitation. We do need to be able to join the military and get married if we wish. But first we had to just BE in all our raunchy perfection! Stonewall Uprising tells that tale.

Full disclosure: Kate and David (straight folks by the way) are friends and we've been hearing about the making of the film for a couple of years.

Tuli Kupferberg, best known as the founder with Ed Sanders of the 60s rock band the Fugs, died today at age 86. The Fugs were a classic of the era that made Stonewall possible. As Kupferberg explained to an interviewer:

our message: love, sex, dope.

Is this what U.S. troops are dying for?

An Afghan actor and film maker wanted to expose the corruption of the Afghan police. So he bought a police uniform in the market, set up a fake checkpoint in Kabul -- and offered the drivers he pulled over an apology for police corruption and a $2 tip. He made a lot of unsuspecting men happy with this daring caper. You can watch the performance in the short clip from CNN.

According to Dion Nissenbaum's McClatchy news blog from Kabul where I saw this:

When asked again this weekend about the open -- and illegal -- sale of police uniforms in Kabul markets, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the problem was one for the Kabul police to tackle...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Deficit hawkery: It's just a political game

I don't usually do this; I usually try for, if not originality, at least added value on this blog. But here I'm just going to reproduce a cogent statement from the wise Meteor Blades that lays out why Republicans (and dumb Democratic elites) are blocking all efforts to mitigate economic pain these days.

Foes of extending unemployment benefits keep spouting two excuses. First, benefits create hobos, layabouts who enjoy spending every day watching cable, drinking six-packs of brew and luxuriating on an average $315 a week instead of looking for a job. For a three-person family, that comes in at $16,380 a year, a couple of grand below the poverty line. Cushy, eh? The second excuse, which we've been barraged with for weeks, is that America cannot afford another extension because of the federal deficit. Between now and November, the extension would cost $33 billion.

These excuses are mere cover for what Republicans who have blocked the extension really want – to make life hard as possible until November. This, they believe, despite their disgraceful record at holding out-of-work Americans hostage to their ideology, will somehow give them cachet to trash the Democrats. And for what? For failing to achieve economically what Republicans have done everything in their power to keep them from achieving. They take their leader Rush Limbaugh seriously.

Paul Krugman describes them as "the coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused." Right on the first count. But unconvincing on the second two. The heartless are neither clueless nor confused. They have a clear-headed agenda: economic terrorism. They're the real-life version of Saw. And their shameless goal is straightforward: worsen the economic situation for millions of Americans' in hopes of scoring more seats in Congress so they can cause even more damage to people's lives.

Thinking about the U.S. deficit

Actually, as economists more devoted to reality than to apologetics for greed have been insisting loudly, we shouldn't be thinking about the U.S. deficit right now. The Administration should be moving heaven and earth to spend more, to bailout the states, to save and create jobs, and to push the Federal Reserve to do the same if they don't want us mired in recession for the foreseeable future.

But if you remain curious about ways to bring down the national debt sometime in the future when we are more prosperous, I recommend exploring the Deficit Calculator created by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. This outfit describes itself as aiming

to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives.

The calculator shows what percentage of annual Gross Domestic Product-GDP (a standard measure of economic activity) the debt would be in 2020 under various policy options. At present, projections are that the debt to GDP ratio will hit 85 percent in 2020. The U.S. debt to GDP ratio is currently about 53 percent. By comparison, Japan currently sits at 185 percent of GDP, Greece (considered a basket case) is at 113 percent, and Argentina and Poland check in the 40s.

For the European Union, the standard countries must aim for has long been set by the Mastricht Treaty at 60 percent -- and any number of economists will tell you that this has been inflexibly low, privileging Germany at the expense of other member states.

So here's what happened when I played with the deficit calculator. Your mileage may vary ...

1) How about applying a small tax on financial speculation? Hey, that gets us down to 75 percent of GDP right there! Here's what that would work according to CEPR:

This is a modest tax on financial transactions like trades of stocks, options, futures and credit default swaps. A modest tax on these trades (e.g. 0.25 percent on the sale or purchase of a share of stock) would be barely noticeable to long-term investors. However, this sort of tax would be very costly to people who buy and sell stock by the hour or even the minute.

2) Let the Bush tax cuts die at the end of 2010. If Congress does nothing, federal income taxes will revert to the levels that existed the 1990s -- not a bad decade for business or people. Add this to the previous action and we'd be down to 69 percent.

President Bush's tax cuts lowered tax rates across the board by 15 percent. These cuts expire at the end of 2010. President Obama has proposed leaving the cuts in place for low and middle income families, but allowing the cuts to expire for families with incomes of more than $250,000 a year. This proposal would leave the cuts in place for high-income families as well.

3) Bring back the inheritance tax. Rich people in the U.S. benefited all their lives from the stability their society provided. They wouldn't have got rich if they had to live in Somalia or Kazakhstan. After the first few million dollars are exempted, their heirs can afford to share some of the loot with the society that made their lives possible. That would get us down to 67 percent. Again, Congress could do this by doing nothing!

The estate and gift taxes were phased out under President Bush's tax cut. However, the taxes are to return to their original levels after 2010.

4) End our unnecessary, purposeless wars. A quick end to Iraq and Afghanistan would get us down to 62 percent.

This proposal would reduce combined troop strength in the region to 30,000 by 2013.

5) Missiles and missile defense are awfully expensive, especially since we outspend the whole rest of the world on weapons. Cuts would get us to 62 percent.

This proposal would reduce strategic nuclear force to 1000 deployed weapons on 160 land-based missiles and 7 ballistic missile submarines; limit planned upgrades to weapons industry infrastructure and research.

6) The really big potential savings are in health care and it doesn't have to complicated. Simply using the bargaining power of the Medicare to bring down drug costs (plus all the measures above) would get us down to 52 percent -- exactly where the debt to GDP ratio sits today!

This option would have Medicare negotiate lower prescription drug prices for drugs purchased under the Medicare prescription drug plan. Currently people in the United States, including those taking part in the Medicare drug plan, pay close to twice as much for the same drugs as in countries like Canada or Australia that negotiate prices with the drug companies.

If deficit reduction is the right policy goal, this exercise shows it is possible without destroying general well-being and/or gutting Social Security and Medicare.

There are two simple principles that should underlie any deficit reduction:
  • the rich have the money and the purpose of civilized government is ensure that they share;
  • the U.S. should get out of the business of world domination by military power projection.
Do those things, and we can stop worrying about excessive national debt.